‘Damsels in Distress’ Review: Whit Stillman’s Latest Has Great Lyrics, But the Music’s a Little Off

“Metropolitan” director Whit Stillman returns after a long hiatus and once again charts the mating habits of the contemporary preppy

Last Updated: April 24, 2012 @ 4:38 PM

If you’re an ardent fan of a singer whose glory days are now decades behind her, you’ll still go see her in concert even if she isn’t quite hitting those high notes anymore. And if you love the films of Whit Stillman — the writer-director of “Metropolitan,” “Barcelona” and “The Last Days of Disco,” who hasn’t released a film since 1998 — you’ll be thrilled to know that he’s finally got a new movie in theaters, even if it doesn’t quite recapture the old magic.

Stillman’s wit is still very much on display in “Damsels in Distress,” make no mistake about it, but while he still has the words, he doesn’t seem to be quite as much in control of the music.

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Not that it ultimately matters much; no other filmmaker manages to capture the twee daffiness that Stillman accomplishes with such seeming effortlessness, and if you’ve been hankering for his portrayals of head-smart and heart-stupid preppies looking for love, “Damsels” will definitely scratch that itch.

Transferring to the prestigious Seven Oaks University, sophomore Lily (Analeigh Tipton) finds herself quickly adopted by a trio of busybody do-gooders out to spread their own brand of self-improvement on campus.

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For ringleader Violet (Greta Gerwig) and her lieutenants Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore), their idea of helping others is to man the campus suicide center (complete with a “Come on, it’s not that bad!” poster, tap-dance classes and a very strict donut policy) and to socialize with a fraternity whose members are rich, attractive and particularly thick-headed.

These pursuits might seem completely pointless, but then Seven Oaks is the kind of place where grad students attempt to kill themselves by jumping off the roof of a two-story building, and where frat boys admit under duress that they don’t know the names of the colors.

What’s really on everyone’s mind, of course, is love — although Violet has the additional agenda of trying to launch a national dance craze. (And while writing this, I’m chuckling all over again at her attribution of the Twist to one “Chubbert Checker.”) 

Violet loses her fella to one of her would-be suicides, while Lily is ardently pursued by white-collar charmer Charlie (Adam Brody), whose every move is dismissed by the hard-bitten Rose as being “playboy or operator-type.” (Her constant repetition of this phrase renders it side-splittingly hilarious by the end of the film.)

In terms of performance, Stillman’s dialogue — Violet is prone to statements like “I think we should learn as many clichés and hackneyed statements as possible” and “I’d like to thank you for this chastisement” — resembles the songs of Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim; the actor has to take a mouthful of verbiage and utter it in the most effortless way possible.

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While Gerwig is a fine comic actress, she never quite gets the rhythm. She looks like she could be the little sister of Chloe Sevigny’s character from “The Last Days of Disco,” and had Stillman made this movie 10 years ago, Sevigny would have been perfect for the role.

With Gerwig, it’s hard to lose sight of the fact that we’re watching an actor act; the words don’t come flowing out the way they should, and while her eyes and her facial expressions are always spot-on, she trips up on the dialogue.

Otherwise, the cast nails it, particularly Echikunwoke, Tipton and, as one of the lunk-headed frat guys, soaps vet Billy Magnussen. Brody, from his collegiate mien to his facility with banter, proves himself to be the perfect Stillman actor; here’s hoping the director makes more movies while Brody’s still young enough to play the kind of characters the auteur likes to write.

Even if parts of “Damsels” feel forced, something that never occurred in Stillman’s earlier movies, it’s still a treat to have this filmmaker back. While by no means his strongest work, even secondary Stillman goes leaps and bounds beyond what most of today’s hacks try to pass off as romantic comedy.